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Fear the Night (2023)

Plenty of people watching Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men" 26 years ago, and then "Your Friends & Neighbors" and "The Shape of Things" not long afterward, thought that the movie business had kept up its end of the deal. The first two had male characters showing no empathy for anyone but themselves and who liked hurting other people, and if the third film swapped the genders around it still put a male under the microscope until a viewer in the same category asked a few sobering queries of himself. Neither Mr. LaBute nor these films are in the cultural conversation much now, even though how males are internally wired is discussed everywhere, urgently, all the time. The feeling that art should speak in answers rather than questions seems to have left Mr. LaBute and his inquiries stuck on the bench.

From a spot there he has kept making films, some of them about the same things; but now modestly budgeted genre exercises coming at their subjects sideways. Two cropped up just last year: "House of Darkness," in which an arrogant man meets ladies named Mina and Lucy but has clearly never read "Dracula" or he would know what trouble he was in; and "Out of the Blue," with Diane Kruger as a blonde noir archetype latching onto a gullible younger man. And now "Fear the Night" is a home invasion thriller, a breed of film with layers of social critique already baked in, to which Mr. LaBute adds a couple more.

Gender dynamics are the point of the new film's plot, which has a group of women attending a bachelorette party at a farmhouse in the California hills, one that's remote enough to conveniently remove the option of a cellphone call for help when trouble starts. Tess (Maggie Q), a loner and recovering alcoholic, tags reluctantly along since her sister Rose (Highdee Kuan) is the bachelorette, but Tess's relationships with other sister Beth (Kat Foster) and friends including Mia (Gia Crovatin) and Noelle (Ito Aghayere) are strained. During the road trip to the house, Tess comprehensively faces down a trio of boorish men in a convenience store, so when a gang of masked thugs subsequently rocks up at the farmhouse after nightfall and commences terrorizing and murdering the women, the identity and apparent motivation of the aggressors might not be much of a surprise. One of their number is seen failing to wash his hands after using the lavatory, establishing the group's credentials even before they start shooting defenseless women in the face with crossbows.

Tess does not panic, takes charge, fights back, mostly with blunt instruments and a spare axe. These are the instincts of a soldier, since the convenience store scene told us that she is a military veteran, wounded while serving as a U.S. adviser during 2016's Third Battle of Fallujah. The oaf loitering by the beer chiller never got nearer the action than Ramstein Air Base; but Tess served under fire in Iraq and brought the scars home with her. So although the film's murderous assault on a group of women has the violence, misogyny and racism of a 1970s exploitation picture, as Mr. LaBute clearly intends, his choice of protagonist pulls on a different thread of film history from a later decade. However warmly America may have welcomed Tess back from Fallujah, its relationship with her has chilled, to judge by Tess's frosty disdain for local law enforcement. Now she sits squarely in the lineage of other veterans, the ones in movies of Reagan-era unease and confusion bubbling up from America's foreign wars.

As it happens Ms. Q herself is half-Vietnamese, just to make the resonances chime a bit louder. Ever since "Mission: Impossible III" in 2006 Hollywood has not found enough use for Ms. Q, who glides around male characters and then kicks them in the nuts like a stuntwoman. But after 2021's "The Protégé," when she was an international assassin and at one point got waterboarded, and now "Fear the Night," she could slide smoothly into position as a female revenger more culturally charged than most, addressing a few societal issues with the sharp end of a pitchfork.


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